Tom Dooley Dulcimer Connection

By David Bennett  August 2015

I’m learning the tune Tom Dooley (it’s actually quite simple) and as many of you know I always enjoy knowing the background of a tune just as much as playing it (the link for the tab is listed below).

Tom_Dula_soldierTom Dula (1845–1868) was born to a poor Appalachian hill country family in Wilkes County, North Carolina, most likely the youngest of three brothers. Tom and his two brothers served in the Confederate army. His brothers were both killed in the war and Tom was wounded.

The name “Dula” is pronounced “Dooley,” the pronunciation of a final “a” like “y” is common in Appalachian speech, as in the name “Grand Ole Opry”. “Tom Dooley” is an old North Carolina folk song based on the 1866 murder of Laura Foster believed to have been committed by Tom Dula. After Tom’s execution, a local named Thomas Land wrote a poem about the event, entitled “The Murder of Laura Foster”, which was intended to be read – not sung.

The history is pretty convoluted; in general, before the War of Northern Aggression, Tom courted both Laura Foster and Ann Melton who were cousins. During the war Ann married a man named Melton. Upon his return Dula began courting Laura again. Apparently Ann still held strong affection for Tom. On May 26, 1866, the night Tom and Laura were to elope Laura disappeared and was later found stabbed to death with a large knife. Ann told authorities where they could find her cousin’s body. Many believed that Ann had murdered Laura and when Laura’s corpse was found Ann was arrested and jailed.

Tom was tried twice for the murder and found guilty both times and hung in 1868. Ann Melton was acquitted in a separate trial based on Dula’s word that Ann had nothing to do with the killing. Dula’s statement on the gallows that he had not harmed Foster but still deserved his punishment led to speculation that Ann was the actual killer and that Dula simply covered for her. Ann, who had once expressed jealousy of Dula’s plans to marry Laura, purportedly died insane a few years after the murder.

The history of the song is just as complicated as the murder of Laura Foster.

There are several early known recordings of the song. In 1929, G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter made the first recorded version of Land’s song for Victor Recordings:

Another version was made popular by the Kingston Trio in 1958 and the other that I know about was recorded by Doc Watson. The origins of both these versions appear to go back generations to folk who knew Dula and Foster. While the lyrics are different the tune for both are very similar.

The Kingston Trio learned “Tom Dooley” [ ] from a recording by folksong collector Frank Warner. In 1937 the folklorist met dulcimer maker Frank Proffitt and they became friends. Warner learned the song from Proffitt [ ] who had learned it from his Aunt Nancy Prather, whose parents had known both Laura Foster and Tom Dula. In 1940 Frank Warner, unaware of the 1929 recording, wrote down the song from Frank Proffitt and later passed it to Alan Lomax who published it in Folk Song: USA.

Doc Watson’s 1964 version, which he had learned from his grandmother, is similar to Grayson and Whitter’s 1929 version []. Doc Watson related, “I learned the melody that I use and some of the lyrics from my grandmother,” he said. “Her mother and dad knew Tom Dula’s family, and she told me a lot that I know about the happening… it was generally believed — and Tom Dula swore he never harmed a hair on Laura’s head — that Annie Melton stabbed the girl and Tom helped to cover up the crime, and Annie Melton was in jail for a while. She made her brags that they’d never put a rope around her pretty, white neck.” source:

Also see Doc Watson & Family on “Tom Dooley” (Tom Dula), BBC, 1976

Bringing this article back to mountain dulcimers, since there is a Frank Proffitt dulcimer connection, I wonder if Ann Melton is related (by marriage) to dulcimer makers Jacob and Raymond Melton? Anyone out there know?

Tab in DAD

Kinston Trio version

Chorus: Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you’re bound to die

I met her on the mountain
There I took her life
Met her on the mountain
Stabbed her with my knife


This time tomorrow
Reckon where I’ll be
Hadn’t abeen for Grayson
I’d abeen in Tennessee


This time tomorrow
Reckon where I’ll be
Down in  some lonesome valley
Hangin’ from a white oak tree


Doc Watson version

Hang your head, Tom Dooley,
Hang your head and cry;
You killed poor Laurie Foster,
And you know you’re bound to die.

You left her by the roadside
Where you begged to be excused;
You left her by the roadside,
Then you hid her clothes and shoes.

Chorus: Hang your head, Tom Dooley,
Hang your head and cry;
You killed poor Laurie Foster,
And you know you’re bound to die.

You took her on the hillside
For to make her your wife;
You took her on the hillside,
And there you took her life.

You dug the grave four feet long
And you dug it three feet deep;
You rolled the cold clay over her
And tromped it with your feet.


“Trouble, oh it’s trouble
A-rollin’ through my breast;
As long as I’m a-livin’, boys,
They ain’t a-gonna let me rest.

I know they’re gonna hang me,
Tomorrow I’ll be dead,
Though I never even harmed a hair
On poor little Laurie’s head.”

“In this world and one more
Then reckon where I’ll be;
If is wasn’t for Sheriff Grayson,
I’d be in Tennessee.

You can take down my old violin
And play it all you please.
For at this time tomorrow, boys,
It’ll be of no use to me.”


“At this time tomorrow
Where do you reckon I’ll be?
Away down yonder in the holler
Hangin’ on a white oak tree.


© GUARD, DAVE For non-commercial use only.
© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, DOWNTOWN MUSIC PUBLISHING LLC For non-commercial use only.



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